Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Obama's online muscle flexes against him

From Chicago Tribune on July 9, 2008: "The same Internet-fueled power that led to historic gains in organizing and fundraising for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is now providing a platform for fiery dissent in a most unlikely place: his own Web site.

Amid criticism from the left that he has eased toward the center on a number of issues in recent weeks, the presumptive Democratic nominee has angered some of his most ardent supporters while triggering something of an online mutiny. Thousands are using to angrily organize against him because of a changed position on terrorist wiretap legislation that awaits Senate action as early as Wednesday.

The dispute has forced Obama to respond in ways never before seen in a presidential campaign, demonstrating the Internet's growing role in the democratic process and the live-by-the-click, die-by-the-click potential it holds for politicians.

The controversy centers on modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the government's quest to monitor suspected terrorists that civil libertarians worry could infringe on the privacy rights of others. Obama had pledged earlier this year to oppose—even filibuster—legislation that would immunize telecommunications companies against lawsuits that challenge cooperation with federal authorities in warrantless wiretapping.

But with that immunity now part of compromise legislation, Obama has softened his stance and suggested that he will back the bill. At a Chicago news conference on June 25, he said the proposal was a "close call" for him.

"The underlying program itself actually is important and useful to American security," he said. "I felt it was more important for me to go ahead and support this compromise."

Online but not on board
That same day, a new online group named "Senator Obama—Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity—Get FISA Right" formed on his campaign's social networking Web site. Now with more than 22,000 members, it is the largest group on

The online group is flooded with messages of disappointment and disillusionment. Some threaten to ask that their campaign contributions be returned, while others suggest they will simply stay home this fall.

One man even said he had removed his Obama bumper sticker from his car. "It's the first and only bumper sticker that I've ever put on a vehicle that I owned, so my disappointment felt personal and significant," he wrote.

Others, meanwhile, are countering that Obama is simply being pragmatic, now that he is in the midst of a general election campaign, and that a single issue should not be used to push supporters away.

"Some people in the group clearly are disillusioned," said Jon Pincus, a consultant and social networking author from the Seattle area deeply involved with the discussion. "A lot of people are saying, 'Let's see how real the rhetoric is.' "

Pincus said he is disappointed with Obama's changed position, but still plans to support him.

The group is eagerly waiting to see if Obama will speak from the Senate floor on the issue, something Pincus said could generate an "Obama moment," like those triggered by other passionate speeches he has given on such topics as race.

Still, that may not be enough for those who say they have lost trust in Obama's conviction on this and other matters.

"This just seems like a tremendous betrayal," said Tom Vincent, a Web designer from upstate New York. "It's a deal-breaker for me."

Seeking to calm the online crowd, Obama has already written extensively about his changed position on his campaign Web site.

"I understand why some of you feel differently about the current bill, and I'm happy to take my lumps on this site and elsewhere," he wrote. "I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country."

Obama's Senate office did not respond to a query on how busy the phone lines and e-mail boxes have been in recent days. His campaign says it appreciates all points of view on the topic.

"This campaign has an extraordinary group of committed supporters, and we greatly appreciate their willingness to share their time and ideas with us," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "We believe that an open dialogue is an important part of any campaign."

Mutters over moderations
Obama may have a higher standard to meet in promise-keeping, in large part because he has sold himself as a new kind of political leader, one who pledged to be more honest and less calculating.

During the primary campaign, he often ran left of Sen. Hillary Clinton, a tactic that helped him win over liberals, boost his fundraising, and ultimately secure his party's nomination.

Now facing Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a general election, Obama has been criticized by some for moderating some of his views in an effort to attract independent voters.

Besides the FISA legislation, Obama has also offered more moderate views in recent weeks on gun-ownership rights and a death penalty ruling by the Supreme Court. He also expressed a willingness to "refine" his timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, depending on the situation on the ground there.

Republicans, meanwhile, are pleased with the Democratic infighting and are trying to use the FISA debate to challenge Obama's integrity.

"Barack Obama has made it increasingly difficult to take him at his word," McCain senior policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote to reporters this week. "After pledging to accept public financing, he decided not to. After saying he would debate 'anywhere, any time,' he decided against participating in any of the 10 joint town hall meetings. After backing the D.C. handgun ban, he now says it was unconstitutional."

While campaigning Tuesday in Georgia, Obama disputed suggestions that he is moderating his positions. "The people who say this haven't apparently been listening to me," he said."